Sheldon Museum of Art Main Content

History of the Sheldon Art Association

In 1888, a group of sixty-seven women and men gathered in Lincoln to form of a society of fine arts, the Haydon Art Club, now the Sheldon Art Association. The club’s first exhibition consisted of a single, large-scale painting, The Wise and Foolish Virgins, by Karl Von Piloty. The work was loaned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and displayed in the federal courtroom of Lincoln's Post Office Building. Thousands of people stood in line and paid fifty cents to see it. The superintendent of the Burlington Railroad added additional train routes to accommodate groups of schoolchildren who poured in from all over Nebraska to view the work. The exhibition was a success.

From its inception, the art association collaborated with the University of Nebraska to collect and study the fine arts. In 1895, the University Library Building, now known as Architecture Hall, opened and became the venue for the association’s exhibitions and permanent collection. In 1896, the group purchased its first major work of art, Evening at the Mianus Bridge by Leonard Ochtman. In 1927, Morrill Hall opened and the art association moved to the building's upper floors. In 1936, Nellie May Vance, a trustee of the art association, began traveling in her Ford Coupe to show art from the permanent collection to school children in every county in Nebraska. Her children’s art exhibition became an international model.

In 1963, the visionary estate gifts of Mary Frances Sheldon and her brother Adams Bromley Sheldon resulted in the construction of a Philip Johnson–designed art museum at the University of Nebraska. In 1964, the Junior League of Lincoln established the museum’s docent program, whose forward-thinking ties to school curriculum remain a model today.

In 1970, Sheldon dedicated the nation’s third sculpture garden—after the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden in Los Angeles. In 1972, Sheldon was among the earliest institutions to receive accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums, the highest national recognition afforded museums in the United States.

Sheldon Statewide traveling exhibitions were initiated in 1987, taking original art from the permanent collection and educational programming to communities throughout the state. The program has reached over 350,000 Nebraskans to date. In 1992, the art association originated the Jazz in June concert series, attracting thousands of people to the sculpture garden and museum each Tuesday in June.

Today, Sheldon is one of the nation’s leading academic art collections, housing the collections of the Sheldon Art Association and the University of Nebraska which together comprise more than 12,500 objects in diverse media. The museum's collection includes prominent holdings of 19th-century landscape and still life, American impressionism, early modernism, geometric abstraction, abstract expressionism, minimalism, and over 3,000 photographs spanning the history of the medium.

Sheldon Art Association continues its mission as the exclusive membership-based support organization to sustain the museum with a focus on supporting exhibitions, acquisitions, education, and outreach. SAA’s art collection, along with that of the University of Nebraska, is housed within Sheldon Museum of Art. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, donations to SAA are tax deductible in accordance with IRS regulations.